March is National Nutrition Month, and what better time to talk about how we sabotage our health at work by not planning healthy snacks in advance. Here are some tips on how to stay healthy at work.
First: Do no harm.
Second: Do some good.
Do No Harm.
Beware carbohydrates, and by that I mean sugars. But to be clear, all carbs (therefore, all sugars) are not evil by nature. Some are beneficial and some are harmful. Making distinctions between them based on what they do to you—and for you—is critical in selecting healthy workplace snacks.
What you eat for breakfast affects how soon you will want a morning snack and what you are likely to choose for a snack. Protein for breakfast cuts your body’s production of ghrelin, the substance in your body that makes your stomach shriek, “Feed me!” When you have a carb-heavy breakfast like a fist-sized toasted bagel, you put your body on a carbohydrate Ferris Wheel: Eating carbs causes your blood sugar levels to rise; that’s followed by an insulin response to lower your blood sugar; a couple of hours later you feel tired, because your blood sugar drops, and then you need some carbs again.
Keep this up-and-down in mind as you look at what often happens in the afternoon.
On two occasions, I worked for companies where the drinks and snacks were free. Around three o’clock in the afternoon, I would take cover in my cube and try not to interact with anyone for the rest of the day. My co-workers were like five year olds who had just broken the piñata. With Starbucks® Bottled Mocha Frappuccino® Coffee Drink (31 grams of sugar) and a fist full of Red Vine licorice (29 grams of sugar in 9), they sugar-shocked themselves into high gear. Then around five o’clock, as the post-snack crash-and-burn hit hard, they would drive home in a stupor.
Not long ago, we all got smart, of course. We switched our afternoon drinks to “water”—like lemon-flavored Pellegrino (33 grams of sugar) and Sobe Strawberry Daiquiri (25 grams of sugar). And instead of chewing on Red Vines, we opted for low-calorie, no-fat rice cakes, many flavors of which spike your blood sugar as well. They also leave crumbs in your keyboard.
In the February 2, 2012 issue of Nature, three University of California researchers made a radical assertion that sugar poses such profound health risks that it should be a controlled substance, like alcohol or cocaine. There is room to disagree with them on the control issue, but not much room to disagree that sugar abuse is a toxic habit.
To abide by the first rule—do no harm—you have to read labels whenever possible. The exception is when there is no label because the snacks sit on doily-covered plastic trays in a meeting room. Since you can’t count on cognitive processes to steer you toward a good selection when you’re bored numb in a meeting (why else would you be at the snack table?), in this circumstance, you must use your eyes as guides. Focus on the fittest person in the room and watch what he or she is eating and drinking. Although this isn’t a foolproof guide, it’s useful if you’re clueless.
You look at a three-gallon bowl of fruit salad next to the chocolate chip cookies and grab that big plastic spoon ready to make the “right” choice. You load your plate with ripe mango slices, cantaloupe, and chunks of pineapple. What do you find in a half cup of mango slices, cup of cantaloupe balls, and a few pineapple chunks? Thirty-four grams of sugar. Don’t despair: There is nutritional value in that fruit, too, but if you have a weight or glycemic index concern—the latter being of great interest to diabetics—then it would be better to replace some of those fruits with relatively low-sugar berries and apples.
In short, it’s not easy to follow the first rule, so the best way to help yourself is to learn how to follow the second one.
Do some good.
If you do a search on the term “nut,” you will find that almost everything you thought was a nut is something else. So don’t bother with the search because what we commonly refer to as nuts are generally healthy for you.
Nuts are great—as long as you don’t eat too many of them. And they pair well with dried fruit, so you can get the filling sensation of the nuts with healthy oils and nutrients combined with the satisfying sweetness of a dried fruit. Almonds and dates are a great combination. If you’re watching calories, set your portion at three or four dates and about a dozen almonds.
Greek yogurt and berries is a very healthful snack, but I have never thought the combination delivered the crunch that a good snack needs. Throw in some walnuts and you might find it more desirable.
Similarly, canned tuna fish has long been a favorite of people trying to shed fat and/or build muscle, but all by itself, it doesn’t provide that sense of texture that most people seek in a snack. Add celery and/or apple and you start to have something that your mouth enjoys on many levels. If you work in a cube on the far side of the building, you can also add some red onion.
Shortly after my nutrition book called Diets Designed for Athletes came out in 2002, I did some guest spots on a radio show focused on golf. One segment was devoted to “What to eat on the back nine,” that is, the second half of the course after you’ve been walking around and swinging for a couple of hours already. (Think of the second half of your workday as the “back nine.”)
When I said, “Chocolate,” the host thought that I meant the gooey bars that teenage boys live on. Even way back then, we knew the benefits of chocolate with a high cocoa content, and I explained that kind of quality chocolate had positive effects on the body—and many of those effects have been more carefully researched in recent years than they had been when I wrote the book. Among other benefits, chocolate with high cocoa content can help you reduce stress, have a noticeable short-term effect on your alertness and mental performance, and even help you lose weight because it’s filling. Experts generally advise aiming for 70 percent cocoa or more. I’d say more like 85 percent. Stick to a couple of ounces a day.
A nutritious pairing with the chocolate is a couple of pieces of dried fig or apricot. It’s so easy to say “just one more” because it takes a little time for you to feel satiated, so try putting the daily portion of chocolate and dried fruit in a baggie and trusting that everything you need for a happy afternoon is in that baggie.
You deserve moments of fun—no-stress, pleasurable moments—in your workday and great snacking can help deliver those moments. It can help you charge into a four o’clock meeting sounding smart and having a lot of energy. So plan ahead to stay on track and stay healthy at work.